Using small grains for forage

Small grains such as barley, oats, triticale and wheat can be excellent forage crops in the form of pasture, hay and silage. With uncertain weather this spring and summer, planning ahead by planting small grains as an emergency crop is a good idea.

Small grains such as barley, oats, triticale and wheat can be excellent forage crops in the form of pasture, hay and silage. These small grains are a cool-season annual and in the case of barley, oats and spring triticale, should be planted in the spring. Winter wheat and winter triticale should be planted in the fall. Since the weather appears to be highly uncertain this spring and summer, planning ahead and planting small grains as an emergency crop can be a good idea.

Selecting Small Grains

Barley:  Barley can produce good quality silage or hay but tonnage can be a little lower than oats and triticale. Barley can be best established on well drained soils and does not perform well when grown on heavy textured soils. Barley can be planted in the early spring because barley is the earliest maturing small grain species. Seeding rates range from 120 to 150 lbs. per acre.

Oats:  Oats are one of the most widely grown small grain forages in Michigan and are better adapted to cool wet soils than barley. Oats might produce the highest yield among small grains and can have very high quality forage when it is harvested in the boot stage. Oats can be planted in May and seeding rate is 65 to 80 lbs. per acre.

Rye:  Rye is one of the most cold-tolerant small grains and is well adapted to wide soil types. Rye can be good for spring pasture. Forage quality and palatability decline rapidly with maturity. Seeding rate is 90 to 100 lbs. per acre.

Triticale:  Triticale is a cross between wheat and rye and is well adapted to a range of soils and does well on sandy soils. Tolerance to low soil pH is better than wheat but not as good as rye. Triticale is better suited as pasture than hay or silage. Seeding rate is 120 to 150 lbs. per acre.

Wheat:  Wheat has good potential for pasture, silage or hay production. Spring wheat can be planted in the early spring and can withstand wetter soils than barley or oats, but tends to be less tolerant of poorly drained soils than rye or triticale. Seeding rate is 120 to 150 lbs. per acre.

Harvesting small grains for forage
Stage of maturity at harvesting can make a significant influence on small grain yield and quality. Deciding when to harvest small grains for forage will be determined by the farm’s forage requirements. In general, there are three stages of maturity for small grains – boot, milk, and dough. The boot stage is the time when the head is enclosed by the sheath of the uppermost leaf. The milk stage is when the grain head releases a white liquid substance when opened. The dough stage is when the grain head begins to turn to a doughy consistency. As the plant matures from the boot stage to the dough stage, forage quality decreases while yield increases. If the goal is to harvest high quality feed, then small grains for forage should be harvested in the flag leaf to boot stage. In contrast, if high yields are the goal, then harvest should occur in the late dough stage. If a compromise is desired, small grains should be harvested in the early dough stage. If small grain harvest is delayed past the late dough stage, then the forage may be too dry to ensile. Since small grains can progress from boot to dough stage in a relatively short period of time, they must be watched closely to harvest at your target time.

Nutritional considerations
In general, small grain forage are low in minerals so that forage testing is recommended in order to provide livestock a properly balanced ration. Mineral supplements containing magnesium are usually used when grazing cattle on small grain pasture to minimize the occurrence of grass tetany. Small grain forages can also cause bloat and feeding high quality grass hay, silage and/or an ionophore such as Rumensin or Bovatec can provide some protection against bloat.

Table 1. Michigan spring triticale-peas mixtures variety trial yield (DM ton/acre) and forage quality, MSU Upper Peninsula Research Center, Chatham, Mich. (Min and Kapp)

 Variety/Mixture

Yield

Crude Protein   (%)

ADF (%)

NDF (%)

TDN (%)

RFV

 Tritical 2700 Triticale

1.30

17.8

34.3

5.30

62.1

109.0

 Triticale (VNS)*/Nugget Pea

1.59

18.6

34.2

47.4

62.2

122.3

 Tritical 2700 Triticale/Arvica
 forage pea

1.41

17.2

36.1

51.0

60.7

111.5

 Tritical 2700 Triticale/Hendriks
 forage pea

1.42

17.9

35.1

50.3

61.5

113.9

 Tritical (VNS)/LC 6040 forage peas

1.21

21.0

31.5

44.4

64.3

135.0

 Mean

1.39

18.5

34.2

49.2

62.1

118.3

 Least significant difference

0.48

 4.1

 2.7

    6.3

    2.1

    17.7

*Variety not stated; seeded on May 3, 2010 and harvested on June 30, 2010

Table 2. Potential yield and forage quality of small grains (Darby, Univ. of Vermont)

 Small grains

DM   Yield (t/a)

CP   (%)

NDF   (%)

dNDF   (%)

IVDMD   (%)

 Barley

1.9

15.4

61.2

61.7

71.6

 Oats

2.5

15.9

57.0

54.6

66.4

 Triticale

2.1

15.5

60.9

61.7

66.1

 Wheat

1.8

15.1

60.1

56.4

67.0

DM = dry matter, CP = crude protein, NDF = neutral detergent fiber, dNDF = digestible neutral detergent fiber, IVDMD = in-vitro dry matter digestibility